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Closing up shop: A glimpse into the long history of the MHA

By Samantha Sommerfield

It’s an organization that has been around for many, many decades, but due to lack of membership, the Manitoba Hairstylists’ Association (MHA) is closing its doors.

“It’s really no different than the dozens of trade organizations that are gradually dwindling. It’s just a sign of the times. I think we had a great run,” John Unger, the former director at large for the MHA, explains. “I think that most of the people who are working now never knew all of the MHA’s history.”

It all dates back to the mid-1930s with Carl Allenbach.

During this time, the hair industry in Manitoba was predominately represented by barbers. Allenbach’s objective was to create an organization that could support these barbers and their concerns within the industry.  As a result, Allenbach was the main force in creating and administering the Manitoba Master Barbers Association, which kept barbers informed and let them discuss issues, such as controlling the days they could work a week, hours per day and obtaining by-laws that allowed the barber association to enforce those things.

It wasn’t until three decades later, when men’s hairstyling started to gain popularity, that there was a shift in the association’s focus to become more of an educational outlet.

Longtime MHA member, past president, and hairstyling instructor at MITT, Mary Elliot received the Outstanding Member of the Year award during the 2008 AGM. The award was presented to her by MHA past president Frank Vinci.
Longtime MHA member, past president, and hairstyling instructor at MITT, Mary Elliot received the Outstanding Member of the Year award during the 2008 AGM. The award was presented to her by MHA past president Frank Vinci.

The men’s hairstyling movement came from Europe to Canada in the mid-1960s due to The Beatles hysteria, ultimately changing the landscape of barbering. In response, the association started up a sub-organization, called the Guild of Men’s Hairstylist of Manitoba.

“We would put on shows and bring people into town to show them how to preform razor shaping and blow drying,” says Unger. “That was a big advantage to the association because a lot of people wanted to join the guild, but to join they had to be in the association, so our numbers were growing strongly.”

It was also a pivotal moment because, as Unger explains, the Manitoba Hair Fashion Committee, which was the women’s equivalent to the Manitoba Master Barbers Association, was in decline. It was apparent that women hairdressers weren’t being properly represented, so the idea was brought to the board members of the association to change its name.

“The board then promoted the name change to make sure that everyone knew this was an organization they could benefit from,” says Unger.

Thus, the name changed, and the Manitoba Master Barbers Association became the Manitoba Barber-Stylists Association for a while, and more women started to join. It didn’t become known as the MHA until the 1990s.

Barbara Parkin was one of many women who joined the association, staying for 30 years, but her connection was long before her membership.

“I wasn’t even in school for the trade yet, but I would attend meetings along with my mother, who was a hairstylist. It was really good insight for me to see what was going on,” says Parkin. “I found it very intriguing to listen to, and be a part of the conversation… it gave me an opportunity to learn and spurred a lot of interest in the field.”

Former MHA president and director-at-large, John Unger, giving a demonstration on razor sculpting techniques at an MHA education class in 2009.
Former MHA president and director-at-large, John Unger, giving a demonstration on razor sculpting techniques at an MHA education class in 2009.

Parkin remembers driving from rural Manitoba to the city with her mother. She says that it was those trips that strengthened their relationship to become a mother-daughter stylist team. She used the time to network and take advantage of the educational aspect the MHA offered its members.

“They would do the formal meeting then a demonstration, and then you were able to network with master stylists. That stayed true for many years. I think those qualities were a sign of a strong association,” she says.

However, manufacturers started putting on their own shows, and soon that edge the association had became redundant, and in the past decade membership started declining.

Parkin credits the MHA for inspiring her at a young age and is sad it is closing its doors. She hopes that it will be remembered for sharing that wealth of knowledge and will miss the face-to-face contact with the pillars of the industry.

“It created a sense of open communication that forged growth in the hairstyling trade,” says Parkin. “I do hope that some of the collective people in the industry get together and connect, to make something strong down the road again.”

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